Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Positive Possibilities of Love


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“Positive thinking is the first step, but without positive action your only halfway there. It's like taking a marathon with only one running shoe.”
— Mickie Kent

The self-help industry is mired in ideas about positive thinking that are at best ineffective and at worst destructive. In principle, their ideas sound perfectly reasonable. However, in practice they often prove ineffective. Most forget to mention that along with positive thinking, you need positive action. It's true the majority of us react more to an emphasis on the positive, but if you want to be more confident or successful, experts suggest the best thing to do is act the part.

For years self-help gurus have preached the same simple mantra: if you want to improve your life then you need to change how you think. Train yourself to have positive thoughts and you will become happier. Visualise your dream self and you will enjoy increased success. This is indeed true - and a very important part of the equation - but it is only PART of the formula.

Take visualisation. Hundreds of self-improvement books encourage readers to close their eyes and imagine their perfect selves; to see themselves in a huge office at the top of the corporate ladder, or sipping a cocktail as they feel the warm Caribbean sand between their toes. Unfortunately, research suggests this technique does not work ON ITS OWN.

In one study led by Lien Pham at the University of California, students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualising themselves getting a high grade in an upcoming exam. Even though the daydreaming exercise only lasted a few minutes, it caused the students to study less and obtain lower marks.

In another experiment led by Gabriele Oettingen from New York University, graduates were asked to note down how often they fantasised about getting their dream job after leaving college. The students who reported that they frequently fantasised about such success received fewer job offers and ended up with significantly smaller salaries.

Why should this be so? Maybe those who fantasise about a wonderful life are ill-prepared for setbacks, or become reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goal. Either way, the message is clear - simply imagining the perfect you is not good for your life.

Add positive action to positive thinking

Part of this latter part to the equation to transform you life, positive action includes learning the habit of choice.

Click here to change 6 negative habits.

You can have anything, be anything, and do anything if you just make the choice to do so - and get in the habit of doing so. Or rather get out of the negative habit of NOT doing so.

The power of positive habits is highlighted by cognitive re-structuring, which is learning to identify your own cycle of negative thoughts, habits and routines and replacing them with positive thoughts, habits and routines that will provide you with lifelong benefits. The science of cognitive re-structuring is a well kept scientific secret which has the ability to change your life more then any self-help book you'll read.

Read how to change errant beliefs.

Once you added a new positive habit or routine to your life, you would be on "autopilot". Regardless of the goals you set, the theory is that you would now be reaching them automatically. Weight loss would be automatic and permanent, success would be automatic, your health would improve automatically, you would be more motivated and have more energy, and on and on.

And the power to choose whatever you want takes advantage of a future that has not happened yet. You create your future. The choices that you make today will shape what happens tomorrow. This is the first step in determining your future.

You can make it a habit to choose what you want in life. For example, weight loss is, in fact, a choice you make. Much like you choose your mate, your occupation, or your place of residence, you can chose to lose weight and stay thin. None of the unsuccessful areas of your life are life-long sentences over which you have no control. You can choose to change your situation at any moment. So for instance, if you are completely frustrated with your current weight, now is good a time to make the choice to change. Positive action is necessary.

Inspired action or massive action?

The technological advances of our society have come with a cost. Many of us suffer "paralysis by analysis". We are bombarded with so many different points of view that the information becomes overwhelming. It drives many of us to throw up our hands in frustration and do nothing. This information overload allows for confusing and often conflicting information that unnecessarily complicates the transformation of our lives, whether that be in our relationships, or losing weight and regaining optimal health.

So exercise your power of choice! You can have anything, be anything, and do anything you want, if you are willing to choose it. Experts emphasise this is a tool that will be at your disposal whenever you need it. It all starts with choosing to do so.

For example, the key to making weight loss permanent is to replace your old, unproductive habits with newer habits that will support losing weight. In fact, the very best tool you can use for long lasting weight loss is the tool between your ears. Your brain is the best piece of equipment at your disposal to lose weight and keep it off. The more you feed your mind with powerful results producing information, the more successful you will be.

Thus, positive action AND positive thinking is the formula which will help you get control of all aspects of your life. If you dream it, you can achieve it. Dare to dream and then choose to pursue and make those dreams come true. There's a huge difference between identifying what it is you want and choosing to go after it. Identifying what you want is only the first step in the process. You must then make the choice to go after it. Experts say this is the key that will unlock any goal you may have now or in the future.

Some of the choices you make have a long lasting and dramatic impact on your life forever. The choices you make dictate the life you will lead. Where you are today is the result of all the choices you have made up to this point. Choice is powerful. Choice can be the ignition switch that fires up the vehicle that will allow you to reach your goals.

Choosing to go after your goals is like switching the "On" switch on a piece of machinery. Until you make the conscious choice to get what you want, you're desires still in the "Off" position. By making the conscious choice to go forward, you start the process of taking steps to realise your goals.

Here is an action exercise you can try: Take out a piece of paper. Write down everything you wish you were and everything you wish you had. Be honest with yourself. This is essentially subjective. There is no good or bad, right or wrong. Don't worry about what you "should" be or "should" have. Write down what you want.

Take at look at the list of goals that you have identified. Are you willing and determined to accomplish each and every one of those goals?

This is a crucial question, as it's that one small factor, the step between identifying your goal and choosing to go after it, that determines whether you succeed or not. Having the courage to identify your goals and then choosing to accomplish them is what distinguishes successful people from those that merely wish.

Begin using your power of choice. Look over the list of goals you have written. Make the choice whether or not you are going to go after those goals. Make it a habit to chose what it is you want in life and then resolve to get it. After you have thought about what you want, you must choose to go after it.

So many people live lives of quiet desperation because they do not make the choice to act upon their dreams. They are held back by fear and often times choose not to realise their dreams, and so often nothing changes in their lives. However experts say that the psychology of possibility is the best way to approach things - by focusing on possibilities, rather than the status quo. For instance, when faced with disease or infirmity, we may find a way to adjust to what is. In the psychology of possibility, we search for the answer to how to improve, not merely to adjust.

In another example, most of us believe that between the ages of forty and fifty, our eyesight will start to decline. If instead we thought that perhaps our eyesight could improve over time - be better than when it was at its best - we might develop ways to make that happen. Or instead of seeing an older person who doesn't have memory loss as an anomaly, seeing them as becoming a model for how we all might be.

But while focusing on future possibilities and acting to make them materialise, another step towards positive action is the psychology of acting-to-become to affect change into your life.

A simple way to change how you think and feel

When it comes to change, decades of research show that there is indeed a simple but highly effective way to transform how you think and feel. The technique turns common sense on its head but is grounded in science. Strangely, the story begins with a world-renowned Victorian thinker and an imaginary bear.

Working at Harvard University in the late 19th century, William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, was attracted to the unconventional, often walking around campus sporting a silk hat and red-checked trousers, and describing his theories using amusing prose ("As long as one poor cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world").

This unconventional approach paid off. First published in 1890, James' two-volume magnum opus The Principles of Psychology is still required reading for students of behavioural science.

Towards the end of the 1880s, James turned his attention to the relationship between emotion and behaviour. Our everyday experience tells us that your emotions cause you to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown. Case closed, mystery solved. However, James became convinced that this common-sense view was incomplete and proposed a radical new theory.

James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James' favourite way of putting it: "You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it."

James' theory was quickly relegated to the filing drawer marked "years ahead of its time", and there it lay for more than six decades.

Throughout that time many self-help gurus promoted ideas that were in line with people's everyday experiences about the human mind. Common sense tells us that emotions come before behaviour, and so decades of self-help books told readers to focus on trying to change the way they thought rather than the way they behaved. James' theory simply didn't get a look-in.

Act as if...

However in the 70s psychologist James Laird from Clark University decided to put James' theory to the test. Volunteers were invited into the laboratory and asked to adopt certain facial expressions. To create an angry expression participants were asked to draw down their eyebrows and clench their teeth. For the happy expression they were asked to draw back the corners of the mouth. The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James years before, the participants felt significantly happier when they forced their faces into smiles, and much angrier when they were clenching their teeth.

Subsequent research has shown that the same effect applies to almost all aspects of our everyday lives. By acting as if you are a certain type of person, you become that person - what experts have called the "As If" principle.

Read more on acting-to-become theory.

Take, for example, willpower. Motivated people tense their muscles as they get ready to spring into action. But can you boost your willpower by simply tensing your muscles? Studies led by Iris Hung from the National University of Singapore had volunteers visit a local cafeteria and asked them to try to avoid temptation and not buy sugary snacks. Some of the volunteers were asked to make their hand into a fist or contract their biceps, and thus behave as if they were more motivated. Amazingly, this simple exercise made people far more likely to buy healthy food.

The same applies to confidence. Most books on increasing confidence encourage readers to focus on instances in their life when they have done well or ask them to visualise themselves being more assertive. In contrast, the As If principle suggests that it would be much more effective to simply ask people to change their behaviour.

Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, led a study where she split volunteers into two groups. The people in one group were placed into power poses. Some were seated at desks, asked to put their feet up on the table, look up, and interlock their hands behind the back of their heads. In contrast, those in the other group were asked to adopt poses that weren't associated with dominance. Some of these participants were asked to place their feet on the floor, with hands in their laps and look at the ground. Just one minute of dominant posing provided a real boost in confidence.

The researchers then turned their attention to the chemicals coursing through the volunteers' veins. Those power posing had significantly higher levels of testosterone, proving that the poses had changed the chemical make-up of their bodies.

Trick yourself into feeling younger

The As If principle can even make you feel younger. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer has conducted many high-profile experiments; one of her most striking involved using the As If principle to turn back the hands of time. In her psychological time travel experiment the results were startling - the study subjects appeared to become younger.

In 1979 Langer recruited a group of men in their 70s for a "week of reminiscence" at a retreat outside Boston. Before the study started, Langer tested the men's strength, posture, eyesight and memory.

She then encouraged the men to act as if they were 20 years younger. When they arrived at the retreat, for instance, there was no one there to help them off the bus and they had to carry their suitcases inside. In addition, the retreat had not been not equipped with the type of rails and other movement aids they had at home. After unpacking, everyone was assembled in the main room of the retreat. Surrounded by various objects from the 50s, including a black-and-white television and a vintage radio, Langer informed the participants that for the next few days all of their conversations about the past had to be in the present tense, and that no conversation must mention anything that happened after 1959.

Within days, Langer could see the dramatic effect of behaving As If. The participants were now walking faster and were more confident. Within a week several of the participants had decided that they could now manage without their walking sticks. Langer took various psychological and physiological measurements throughout the experiment and discovered that the group now showed improvements in dexterity, speed of movement, memory, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing. Acting as if they were young men had knocked years off their bodies and minds.

Langer describes how the study came about, and how it was conducted, in chapter one of her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. She then says the following:

This study shaped not only my view of ageing but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true.

If a group of elderly adults could produce such dramatic changes in their lives, so too can the rest of us. To begin, we must ask if any of the limits we perceive as real do exist. For example, we largely presume that as we age our vision gets worse, that chronic diseases can’t be reversed, and that there is something wrong with us when the external world no longer "fits" as it did when we were young.

Langer concludes this section with the following:

Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things. It is not about New Age medicine nor traditional understandings of illness. It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray. The goal of this book is to convince you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours.

More than a century ago William James proposed a radically different approach to change. Decades of research has shown that his theory applies to almost every aspect of everyday life, and can be used to help people feel happier, avoid anxiety and worry, fall in love and live happily ever after, stay slim, increase their willpower and confidence, and even slow the effects of ageing.

So sit up straight and take a deep breath. It is time to rip up the rule book and embrace the truth about change. Here are 10 quick and effective exercises that use the As If principle to transform how you think and behave.

  • HAPPINESS: Smile. This is the granddaddy of them all. As Laird's study demonstrated, smile and you will feel happier. To get the most out of this exercise, make the smile as wide as possible, extend your eyebrow muscles slightly upward, and hold the resulting expression for about 20 seconds.
  • WILLPOWER: Tense up. As Hung's experiments show, tensing your muscles boosts your willpower. Next time you feel the need to avoid that cigarette or cream cake, make a fist, contract your biceps, press your thumb and first finger together, or grip a pen in your hand.
  • DIETING: Use your non-dominant hand. When you eat with your non-dominant hand you are acting as if you are carrying out an unusual behaviour. Because of that you place more attention on your action, do not simply consume food without thinking about it, and so eat less.
  • PROCRASTINATION: Make a start. To overcome procrastination, act as if you are interested in what it is that you have to do. Spend just a few minutes carrying out the first part of whatever it is you are avoiding, and suddenly you will feel a strong need to complete the task.
  • PERSISTENCE: Sit up straight and cross your arms. Ron Friedman from the University of Rochester led a study where volunteers were presented with tricky problems to see how long they persevered. Those who sat up straight and folded their arms struggled on for nearly twice as long as others. Make sure your computer monitor is slightly above your eye-line and, when the going gets tough, cross your arms.
  • CONFIDENCE: Power pose. To increase your self-esteem and confidence, adopt a power pose. If you are sitting down, lean back, look up and interlock your hands behind your head. If you are standing up, then place your feet flat on the floor, push your shoulders back and your chest forward.
  • NEGOTIATION: Use soft chairs. Hard furniture is associated with hard behaviour. In one study Joshua Ackerman at the MIT Sloan School of Management had participants sit on either soft or hard chairs and then negotiate over the price of a used car. Those in the hard chairs offered less and were more inflexible.
  • GUILT: Wash away your sins. If you are feeling guilty about something, try washing your hands or taking a shower. Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto discovered that people who carried out an immoral act and then cleaned their hands with an antiseptic wipe felt significantly less guilty than others.
  • PERSUASION: Nod. If people nod while they listen to a discussion they are more likely to agree with the points being made. When you want to encourage someone to agree with you, subtly nod your head as you chat with them. Research led by Gary Wells of Iowa State University shows that they will reciprocate the movement and find themselves strangely attracted to your way of thinking.
  • LOVE: Open up. Couples in love talk about the more intimate aspects of their lives. Research carried out by Robert Epstein, founder of the Cambridge Centre for Behavioural Studies, shows that the opposite is also true - more intimate chat makes people feel attracted to each other. If you are out on a date, get the other person to open up by asking what advice they would give to their 10-year-old self, or what one object they would save in a house fire.

Yours in love,

Mickie Kent